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Giuseppe TARTINI (1692 - 1770): "Suonate a violino e violoncello o cimbalo"

Enrico Gatti, violin; Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Guido Morini, harpsichord

rec: Sept 18 - 21, 2000a & May 17 - 20, 2001b, Saint-Jean-de-Côle (Dordogne), Église Saint-Jean Baptiste
Arcana - A 908 (R) (© 2020) (2.09'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pastorale in A, op. 1,13 (B. A16)a; Sonata III in C, op. 1,3 (B. C11)a; Sonata IV in G, op. 1,4 (B. G17)a; Sonata X in G, op. 1,10 'Didone abbandonata' (B. g10)a; Sonata XII in F, op. 1,12 (B. F4)a; Sonata I in D, op. 2,1 (B. D13)b; Sonata IV in b minor, op. 2,4 (B. h6)b; Sonata V in a minor, op. 2,5 (B. a10)b; Sonata XI in e minor, op. 2.11 (B. e8)b

Sources: Sonate a violino e violoncello o cimbalo, op. 1, 1734; Sonate a violino e basso, op. 2, 1745

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebrations as part of the commemoration of Beethoven's birth in 1770 went largely down the drain. That same year Giuseppe Tartini, generally considered the most brilliant violinist of his time, died. If the Beethoven celebrations had taken place as planned, they would certainly have overshadowed this fact. Fortunately, some representatives of historical performance practice and some labels have not forgotten to pay attention to the death of someone who played a crucial role in the development of violin technique.

Tartini was one of the greatest Italian violin virtuosos of his time, and one could consider him the successor of Vivaldi. However, they were very different. That was not just a matter of contrasting characters. It had everything to do with artistic views. Tartini was very critical about the tendency to put virtuosity in the centre. Roger-Claude Travers, in the liner-notes to the recording of concertos by Locatelli, Vivaldi and Tartini with Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Archiv 474 5172), writes: "By the early 1730s Tartini had found a distinctive voice of his own, speaking a language that combines the art of cantabile writing with instrumental virtuosity, while eschewing the departures of composers like Locatelli, who straddled the gulf between performance and tradition, and, above all, Vivaldi, with his blithe blurring of the dividing line between theatricality and the concerto. (...) His aim was to rediscover in violin playing the perfect, natural sound of the singing human voice. It was an ethical position."

Around 1740 Tartini suffered a stroke which partly paralysed his left arm and had some effect on his playing. As a result he devoted most of his time to teaching, in particular at the violin school he started in 1727 in Padua, where he lived from 1726 until his death, and to the writing of theoretical works, often of a rather speculative nature. He believed that God had entrusted to him the task of revealing the unifying principles of the universe. According to Tartini the source of truth is Nature. Art, on the other hand, was the modification of a given truth. Therefore the closer the artist remains to Nature the closer he will get to the truth. "I am at home as much as I can with Nature, and as little as possible with Art, having no other Art than the imitation of Nature", he wrote to a friend.

These principles explain his criticism of Vivaldi and virtuosity, as well as his own development towards a 'natural' and poetic style of composing. It is also in line with the general preference for a 'natural' style in music, which was one of the main esthetic principles of the Enlightenment. In accordance with these principles, Tartini moved away from polyphony and concentrated on melody, which he considered the perfect tool to express Affects.

The most pronounced feature of Tartini's music is the influence of literature, and in particular poetry. He usually read from the writings of Metastasio, Petrarch or Tasso before starting to compose. He included quotations from these writings in his manuscripts in a code of his own, which have created a kind of esoteric aura around Tartini. Both in his concertos and his sonatas we find quotations from poetry. These quotations are not illustrated, as it were, in the music. They rather delivered the context which was then the starting point for a composition. Basically the connection between the poetry and the music is only known to the composer. A commentator writes: "The poetry of these mottoes (...) reminded Tartini of the emotional mood to be kept in mind in performance, linked to the literary context to which they referred. These affects, clearly, should not be seen as a quest for subjective expression (as will be the case in Romantic music), but as an abstract configuration of feelings with a rhetorical intention (as is characteristic of the period in which the composer lived)."

The Tartini year has resulted in some new recordings of concertos and sonatas, some of which have been reviewed here, but also some reissues, among them the twofer which is the subject of this review. The recordings date from 2000 and 2001 and were released by Arcana in 2003. Enrico Gatti wrote the liner-notes; unfortunately they are not dated, but I assume that they are identical with those of the first release, also considering that the bibliography does not include any title from after 2000. They are interesting and informative, but also somewhat outdated. Gatti states that Tartini's music is not often played "these days", but although Tartini still does not appear frequently on concert programmes, the situation is not as bad as when he wrote his notes. He also complains about the fact that the story of Tartini meeting the devil, which resulted in his composing the so-called 'Devil's trill sonata', is still repeated uncritically. It makes him shouting: "[May] the devil go to the devil once and for all!". However, I am sure that most commentators today are aware of the fact that most of this story is a myth.

Tartini's oeuvre is quite large. He composed a small number of sacred works, but the largest part of his output comprises music for his own instrument. It consists of around 135 concertos, about 200 sonatas and in addition some trio sonatas and sonatas in four parts. Each of these two discs is devoted to a collection of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo. The first was published as the Opus 1 by Le Cène in Amsterdam in 1734. Although it includes twelve sonatas, as was the custom at the time, Tartini added a Pastorale, which is unusual for its use of the scordatura technique, which was basically an issue of the 17th century and was becoming gradually obsolete during the 18th. Tartini here includes effects referring to the bagpipe and the hurdy-gurdy. The twelve sonatas are divided into two sets of six each. The first six are modelled after Corelli's sonate da chiesa; we hear two of them, the Sonata III in C and the Sonata IV in G. The second movements are fugal, and close with a short slow section, which is not more than a transition between the two fast movements. The remaining six sonatas are of the sonata da camera type. They comprise three movements, the latter of which end with a slow episode. Two of these sonatas are included here. The Sonata X in g minor bears the nickname Didone abbandonata, but this is not authentic and dates from the 19th century. However, commentators generally acknowledge that the sonata's character gives some reason for this association, and that includes Enrico Gatti. Interestingly, the engraving on the fly leaf of the Le Cène edition is a rendering of the Queen of Carthage. However, in the end, it is all pure speculation. The Sonata XII in F is an example of a sonata with a poetic phrase: "Lascia ch'io dica addio" - Let me say goodbye. The fact that Tartini uses this phrase in several compositions suggests that it is not connected specifically to this sonata. The closing movement is a theme with variations; each variation is a demonstration of a particular playing technique, such as trills, double stopping and arpeggio. The mastery of the bow was one of the hallmarks of Tartini's playing and teaching, and that is demonstrated in these variations.

In 1745 Antonio Cleton in Rome published the second set of twelve sonatas as Tartini's Op. 2. Technically they are not less demanding than the Op. 1 sonatas, but stylistically they are different. There is little left of counterpoint; there are no fugues in the second movements, and in these sonatas we find even more the influence of poetry and also of traditional music. Gatti mentions traces of folk music from Slavic countries of the East, which can be explained by the fact that Tartini was born in Istria in what today is Slovenia. He does not give any example, but I noticed it in the third movement of the Sonata I in D. It has the character indication affettuoso, and that can be considered a hallmark of Tartini's style in these sonatas, and generally in his music from later in his career. Two of the other sonatas include a movement with the indication cantabile, which also reveals that poetry and literature in general are among his sources of inspiration.

Gatti has consulted various sources for the recording of these sonatas. He states that in the case of the slow movements there are no versions with ornaments by Tartini himself. He adds ornaments of his own, but does so in different ways in the two sets of sonatas. In the Op. 1 is more generous in this department than in the Op. 2 sonatas, where - as he writes in his liner-notes - Tartini inserted many ornaments in the melodic line. This is an indication of the careful and thought-out approach to the interpretation of these sonatas. Gatti avoids spectacular effects - although certainly not eschewing virtuosity, for instance in his ornamentation - and rather emphasizes the intimate and poetic features of Tartini's music. Therefore this set is of great importance with regard to interpretation of Tartini's sonatas. The reissue of this set of discs is most welcome, and nobody interested in Tartini should miss it. Gatti was a pioneer of historical performance practice in Italy, which in the course of time has become mainstream there as it has north of the Alps. This set of discs is also a tribute to his art and his activities in the revival of baroque music. Here he receives substantial support from two other prominent representatives of the Italian early music scene.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Enrico Gatti
Gaetano Nasillo

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